What are academics for?

July 25, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Medeleeff by repin

Why do we have these people? We see plenty of them; they’re always in the media. They talk, a lot. But what’s the point of academics?

We know why we have universities and colleges. They’re safe houses, quarantining intellectuals so that the rest of us only have to put up with them at a distance, buffered by radio, TV or internet. People who don’t really fit are collected into pleasant refuges where they have others like themselves to keep them company. We’re OK with that. One mark of a good society is how it treats its academics.

All we ask in return is that they teach some vaguely useful stuff to kids to help them find jobs, while allowing the dear little things to a) make the friends who’ll help them out in later life and b) get the partying (mostly) out of their systems.

Oh, and there’s paperwork — and boy, do academics whinge about that. Like no one else faces hateful bureaucracies.

But why have academics at all? Can’t the teaching be done by teachers, instead of people who’d really rather be researching the sex lives of protons, or some such?

Traditional answers to this question are as follows:

1) Academics provide the creative sparks which drive innovation

Isaac Asimov‘s short story ‘Profession‘ makes this claim. In its future Earth, children are selected for specific jobs based on their brain structure, and programmed with the necessary knowledge. Asimov asks how, in such a system, creativity is sustained, and links creativity to rebelliousness and to — in conventional terms — failure.

Governments make this claim too, but they don’t see the need for rebelliousness, and they do appear to see creativity purely as a money-making tool.  Oddly, this doesn’t stop my government piling up obstacles, like the costly, cruel and inane Research Excellence Framework. Poor management, a plethora of regulations, and soaring numbers of students and managers — but not academics — could have been designed to stamp out the creative impulse. Either our masters are stupid, or they’re not listening to front-line people, or ideology can trump both evidence and economics. My guess would be it’s a mix of the latter two.

2) Academics create, store and pass on knowledge

Computers can do that. They used only to store stuff, but online teaching’s becoming ever more common, despite its problems. And data-crunching algorithms are being loosed on big datasets to find new ideas. At present, we still need academics to programme the crunchers and interpret the results. Students also seem to prefer being taught by humans. But part of the anxiety cascading through academia at the moment may be due to a feeling that they are undervalued, and may become superfluous, in a system whose overriding ethos is about money.

3) Academics speak truth to power

I wish. Those who do generally don’t get a hearing, and most don’t. Academics may be creative, but that doesn’t make them natural activists. Besides, the system comes down increasingly hard on troublemakers. (The current enthusiasm for open access publishing is, paradoxically, making things worse: because universities have to pay the author fee, they’re now deciding who gets published, giving them a hefty motivational lever for irksome faculty.)

4) Academics help us become better citizens

Do we have any evidence for this? As an academic myself, I’d like to believe that we’re gatekeepers, helping people make sense of life’s complexities. Human beings do seem to enjoy understanding stuff, judging by the kind folks who’ve thanked me for ‘making it so clear’ about brain research. So maybe academics provide that particular reward.

Could it be that our education systems haven’t yet succeeded in starving the desire to think out of everyone, and our politics haven’t yet brought us all to believe that the only things that matter in life are cash and career?

5) Academics are part of the entertainment industry

In darker moments, I wonder: is this what it’s come down to? Watching the news, and the newsreaders’ expressions as they report on some new scientific finding, it’s sometimes hard not to hear a patronising tone. ‘Just look at what these inventive people have come up with now, girls and boys! Whatever will they think of next? And now, here’s Sally with the weather.’

Academics are more and more judged by impact: whether they can get a TV tie-in, or ‘engage the community’. But the community has plenty else to think about, so the intellectuals compete to offer light relief from the daily grind. And yet, some of the things they’re saying may really matter. Is ‘infotainment’ always appropriate?


Creators, interpreters, truth-tellers, guides, or entertainers: what are academics for? What should they be for? Are their purposes changing, and if so, for better or worse? And who’s driving that change?

Maybe that’s what academics are for! Asking questions …



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  1. […] What are academics for? (neurotaylor.com) […]

  2. “….. It is a feature of all academic research that it moves, like fashions, through a process of accumulation, utter rejection, followed by the formulation of new theory. And out of all that revelatory excitement, very little continues as hardened universal truth. The rest is academic fluff. And so, having studied a broad range of disciplines at four major universities, I came to the conclusion that very little of academic work achieves a lasting currency.

    “…it isn’t what we know that’s important, it’s what we believe that is not true that’s important”

    – Estimated Knowledge-Content of Common Academic Subjects…

    Mathematics 75%
    Physics 50%
    Chemistry 50%
    Biology 30%
    Economics 20%
    Medicine 20%
    History 5%
    English Literature 5%
    Media Studies 5%
    Political Science 5%
    Philosophy 5%
    Archaeology 5%
    Anthropology 5%
    Sociology 2%
    Psychology 1%
    Theology 0%

    That is to say that, maybe 95% of what is believed by, say, history academics, is false! How could that be? They work by examining historical documents. Surely there can be no such profound slip-up between reading a documents and drawing historic conclusions from that reading? How is it possible that ten thousand professors can all get it so wrong? The answer is an intriguing one. And it begins a long journey into reassessing the very nature of ‘knowledge’ itself….”

    From ‘Origins of Belief and Behaviour’ by George Rumens. 1800 pages.

    • George, thanks for this fascinating comment. I’d be really interested to know the sources for those estimates.

  3. Firstly, an acknowledgement of your own dangerous and piercing intelligence.

    In reply to your enquiry, the list of estimated academic knowledge comes from Page 30 (from within the Prologue) of a book of 1860 pages called ‘Origins of Belief and Behaviour’. The core hypothesis of the book is ‘Human Sub-Set Theory’ which counters the assumption of the homogeneity of humankind. The hypothesis suggests that humans are social animals wherein different groups within society have very different forms of consciousness. Those several forms of consciousness are each based upon a collection of assumptions concerning the nature of reality, and the optimal way in which the individual can meet his or her needs within society. It used to be called ‘Class’ but Human Sub-Set Theory supersedes the idea of class, and takes our understanding of human belief and behaviour into new levels of understanding. That book unleashes about 50 new and challenging hypotheses, each supported with hundreds of pages of relentless and compelling evidence. Have you read Darwin’s ‘Origins…’ and the accumulation of observation and anecdote?
    The ideas that inform the estimates of academic knowledge-content stem from an inquiry into the recent History of Ideas which seems to reveal that almost all academic knowledge has a half-life of about fifty years. To put it pictorially, the occasional brilliant mind might suggest a new hypothesis, and academics will fill-out the detail, only for the whole lot to be discarded at a later date.
    A second tranche of evidence comes from conversations with retired academics who so often complain that their best research-work and their best understandings of their subject, done some forty or fifty years before, have largely fallen by the wayside; either thoroughly rejected, or over-taken by greater and different theories. This is as true for social scientists as it is for astronomers, many biologists, those working in medicine, economics, politics, literary studies, and others.
    A third source of material is to have a collection of old college text-books and to read with delight the unconvincing claims that once stood for knowledge in the nineteen sixties.
    A fourth source of understanding came from conversations with senior academics, at Oxford and in UC campuses, and to realise their weak attachment as to the validity of what they teach and what they put in text-books. How quickly they would abandon their beliefs when under just a little pressure.
    And yet another indicator is in the academic habit of looking through the windows of another faculty-building, and observing that, “My own subject may be shaky, but I draw inspiration from other academic departments in which I have full confidence”. Alas, there is no reason for such confidence in others. They are floundering as well! Science may be becoming suspicious that that Social Science have failed to develop, and are unable to make predictions. Look at the failure of abnormal psychology in dealing with mental health issues, or the failure of economics to predict a worldwide crash!
    I hope that you might initiate some fresh directions in the Social Sciences, but my doubts about neuroscience are common and trivial: – that one cannot understand a television program by examining the printed circuit-board, and you cannot understand the beauty of a cathedral by demolishing it and examining the brick. In other words, neuroscience may come to nothing without the guidance of profound and profoundly new hypotheses concerning human belief and behaviour as contained in my book. My suggestion on “What is Consciousness?’, is a shocker! But it does lead one to understand instantly religion and other ‘solution-ideologies’.
    I do not advice anyone to read my book. It requires the abandonment of so much that is currently believed in academia, and besides, life is too short. If you have an interest in the ideas that might just possibly dominate future intellectual life, best, initially to talk on the phone, or meet over coffee.
    George Rumens Burgundy 9th Aug 2013

  4. Reblogged this on Spaß mit dem Staat and commented:
    Eine Gesellschaft ist daran zu messen, wie sie mit ihren AkademikerInnen umgeht … Oh-oh… Faszinierender Beitrag von Neurotaylor.

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